A new federal gun control law is forcing law enforcement agencies around the country to search for officers who may lose their right to carry firearms because they have committed domestic violence offenses.
The nation’s basic gun control law, on the books since 1968, has always included an exception for weapons used by government personnel in their official duties. But congressional Republicans removed that exception when they rushed enactment of the domestic violence measure as the last Congress was about to go out of session in September.
The Clinton administration and the Republicans who engineered the final version of the bill are wrangling over who should take responsibility for fixing it when the new Congress takes office next month. In the meantime, law enforcement chiefs from the smallest constabulary to the FBI are struggling with the possibility that an unknown, but potentially significant, number of officers may not be able to fulfill essential duties.
The new law prohibits the possession of a firearm by anyone with a misdemeanor domestic violence conviction on the record. That typically means that the person was found guilty of using, or attempting to use, physical force on an intimate, such as a spouse or a child.
Because the official-use exception was taken out of the law in its final form, state and local law enforcement agencies around the country were advised by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms last month that any personnel who had committed such an offense should be disarmed immediately.
“I’m sure there are police agencies here with people who have had domestic quarrels, and they’re going to run into a serious problem with this,” said 1st Sgt. Bernie Shaw, who heads the Maryland State Police firearms licensing unit.
There are, however, no reliable estimates of how many law enforcement officers may be affected nationally.
In Minneapolis, Police Chief Robert K. Olson issued a special order requiring officers to come forward if they were covered by the new law, which went into effect Sept. 30. So far, of nearly 900 sworn personnel, five officers have reported to the department’s internal affairs office. They were required to turn over their guns and were put on administrative leave, according to department spokesperson Penny Parish.
Scattered news reports from around the country indicate that perhaps another dozen officers have been removed from active duty under similar circumstances, but most police departments are taking a more deliberative approach and are counting on a modification of the law.
Local government officials around the country have predicted that police officers who can no longer carry guns under the new law will probably lose their jobs.
“I don’t condone domestic violence,” said Ron Robertson, head of the Washington police union. “But a policeman, if he can’t carry a gun, gets fired. That’s the end of his job, his career.”
Advocates for victims of domestic abuse said they find the complaints coming from police officers a bit mind-boggling.
“They’re saying, in so many words, that this is not a crime,” said Joan Meier, director of the Domestic Violence Advocacy Project at George Washington University Law School.
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